Next Year

Sep 10, 2019

That's my view as I type this right now. I'm wearing my orange and blue all over New England hoping to run into one of the nine UConn football fans so that I can feast upon their tears. It's totally a "let me have this" situation - the game meant nothing besides telling me we're not as far along as I was hoping we'd be - but right now I don't care. The "Illinois" across my chest as I boarded the ferry this morning had to bring about an internal "damn you, Illini" from at least one random UConn fan, right? Let me have this.

What's on my mind while I'm on vacation? Next year. It's all I'm really thinking about. I do that thing where I put together next year's depth chart during the bye week, and I'm saving that for after Nebraska, but my thoughts are already there. The contributors on this team so far are the junioriest juniors who ever juniored. Some sophomores, sure, and a few seniors sprinkled here and there, but the story so far is this: we took a bunch of juniors who have started for two seasons (Smalling, Palcho, Hansen, Hobbs et al.) and added FIVE additional junior starters. And not just five random starters - the quarterback, two of the three leading receivers, the leading-the-nation-in-sacks defensive end, and an outside linebacker. We're not just adding a few juniors to the defensive tackle rotation - we've added five every-down players.

And the additions aren't finished. Next year, Luke Ford is added to the mix. Chase Brown and Derrick Smith are added to the list. Any transfers that Lovie pulls from the portal this winter will be added to the list. I doubt he finds four "graduating in three years and eligible immediately with two years remaining" players like Peters, Sidney, Imatorbhebhe, and Betiku, but it's quite possible there are several fifth-year transfers next year.

Which means we need to start by talking about 2021 before we talk about 2020. As of right now, with what Saturday looked like, in 2021 we'll have to replace 15 of 24 starters:

Carney/Shogbonyo (whoever is starting next year)

If Jake Cerny replaces Richie Petitbon at right guard next year, it's 16. If Ra'Von Bonner is the starting tailback it's 17. My point: the junioriest juniors who ever juniored.

That's a rough, rough way to sustain a rebuild. I'm sure we'll talk about that just a tiny bit between now and 2021, so that's not really the point of this post, but I thought we should acknowledge this first. I said in 2017 that this would be "an incredibly experienced, senior-laden team in 2020, followed by a cliff in 2021" and then we went out and added FIVE additional juniors to the starting lineup in 2019.

And there's a chance we make the cliff... steeper? Say they don't like their options on the OL and add another Petitbon to fill right guard next season. And say they find a fifth-year middle linebacker to take over for Harding after he graduates. This thing could get insane with senior starters next season. Do I hear 18?

And that's really bad for 2021. But there's some sand over there, so I'm going to go bury my head in it and talk about 2020 like it's the final season for college football.

This 2020 team can best be described as "team with insane experience adds Luke Ford, Marquez Beason, Jadon Thompson, and Reggie Love". And, if he's redshirting (I think he's redshirting?), Isaiah Williams. On paper, so many things are aligned.

With the way I view college football, the stars are aligned next season. Systems are installed, experience is developed, talent has been acquired. There's really no reason a roster like that shouldn't be capable of 9 wins next season.

But with all the turnovers, the penalties, a targeting ejection every game, and scores like Iowa 63, Illinois 0 and Illinois 31, UConn 23, it keeps not advancing towards that. During the 2017 season, I pointed towards the youth - "the talent is there, it just needs to develop". It's now September of 2019, and I'm staring at the 2020 roster, and I'm thinking about a team losing only a few seniors and adding Ford and Beason to the mix, and in my mind that's a 90% chance of great things happening... and yet we're still waiting for it to start happening.

Which means that thinking of next year is weird. I start getting excited (like, really excited - Peters throwing to those three senior receivers, an offensive line with 130+ starts, this improved defense with nine starters returning), and then I think of all the penalties and turnovers on Saturday and wonder if we're ever going to be a disciplined team. The 2020 roster + experience sets up for the best Illini season since 2007, but we just saw more sloppy football on Saturday. Add Luke Ford to this passing game and OH MY GOD. Did we just extend that drive with a roughing-the-passer penalty? OH MY GOD.

At some point, the youth is no longer an excuse. At some point, it has to arrive. We need a click. If it comes in the next few weeks, look out, world. If it doesn't, is it ever going to happen?

My wife is ready to go. I need to wrap this up. I'll settle here: October 12, 2019. I picked it as the breakout moment for Illinois football three years ago, and here I am, still clinging to it. After this past Saturday, I'm really worried that we'll just always be a sloppy football team. But I set a date for "we're back", and I'll hold to it. We can still be building until then, but after that, it's time to see the sloppiness end. I want the second half of 2019 look like a real Big Ten football program.

And then, in 2020, OH MY GOD.


Groundhogday on September 10 @ 12:00 PM CDT

If Lovie falls short this season, things are really set up for a new hire to come in and make a big splash before starting their rebuild.

iluvrt on September 10 @ 09:13 PM CDT

Nice new hire comes in and half the players hit the portal. Well done

Groundhogday on September 10 @ 10:59 PM CDT

If Lovie isn't successful this season, players are going to hit the portal. Hiring a quality replacement might be the best way to keep the team intact, otherwise we are heading for a disaster in 2021.

AHSIllini32 on September 10 @ 03:15 PM CDT

In two of Lovie's three years we've been average or slightly above-average in terms of penalty yards/game.

I'm not sure it's fair to pick our first road game this year and extrapolate that out to thinking we're going to average 90 yards in penalties per game.

Bear8287 on September 10 @ 07:24 PM CDT

and scores like Iowa 63, Illinois 0

Oh yay. It's been a while since that's been mentioned and we can't be reminded enough of that game, right?

and Illinois 31, UConn 23

Definitely equivalent. I'm sure that every Illini fan feels exactly the same after that 31-23 game as they did after 63-0 (almost as bad as that 69-74 loss to NCAA Tourney bound New Mexico State in December 2017, no?).

PosterNB12 on September 10 @ 11:06 PM CDT

I get why you are concerned, but think you can make the case we will be better in 2021 vs 2020. Position by position review:

QB-go from senior Peters to Isaiah with two full years in system. Much higher upside, but lower floor.

RB-everyone but Bonner (who doesn’t impress me) comes back. Epstein?, Chase Brown, Love, Norwood, Sims, Fedanzo.

WR-Yes we lose Sydney, Smalling, and Bebe. But we will have sophomores Thompson and Frenchie (without looking guessing both higher rated than Smalling). Carter, Washington, and Cumby look promising. Plus need is reduced due to...

TEs- both Barker and Ford return in 2021. May be a top 5 position group in country. Will see both on field together.

Interior Line-Should be improved. A senior Stover replacing Kramer, Green will be a beast in 21, and Verdis or Myers (or both) should also be starting.

OT- the position the concerns me most. Losing Palcho and Lowe. Slaughter and Pearl show some promise, but upside is probably average Big Ten starter not All Big Ten starter.

Overall, offense could be better if we find/develop decent tackles and Isaiah is what we hope he can be in this offense.

DT—strength of the team now, and sophomore heavy. 21 will have seniors Oladipo, Woods, Pate, Avery?, and RS-Soph Okpala.

DEs—yes Wole is a great story, but losing Gay, Carney, Shogbonyo, etc is fine. Coleman and Randolph supposedly have looked great. I actually think we will be improved here.

LBs—lose Hansen and Eifler, but Ware is 1b to 1a Eifler. Derrick Smith will be a senior. Tolson will be a senior. And Shammond and Tarique Barnes will have two years. Don’t see a step down here.

Secondary—yes big loses in Adams and Hobbs, but can still roll out Beason with seniors Kerby Joseph, Quan, and Sydney Brown. Plus Devon Witherspoon looks good.

So I see a better defense in 21, and potentially a better offense. Plus we still can grab some elite talent in 2020 and 2021 classes. We lose numbers, but not a ton of elite talent. And all those open scholarships can be used to continue Transfer U (give me a db and two OTs please).

deadguy on September 11 @ 08:14 AM CDT

That's a pretty good breakdown. Nice job.

Illinimac68 on September 11 @ 04:26 AM CDT

The transfer portal will in my opinion become a bigger thing than it is now and we may have just lucked into the coach who can best take advantage of it. People were all worried about our NFL coach and his NFL-heavy staff being too unhip to modern recruiting of high school players. The transfer portal becomes a thing and we have a coach who is familiar with free agency and how to get good players who started with other teams. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Lovie is able to add a bunch of transfers to fill the holes in 2021.

JimmyTheLayup on September 11 @ 08:05 AM CDT

Seems like you're really enjoying your vacation.

Sweetchuck13 on September 11 @ 09:21 AM CDT

Robert - I have no problem with you focusing on the future when our season is already lost and/or is hopeless (like most of the past 8 seasons have been), but here we are 2-0 and looking to go 3-0. The UCONN game was admittedly sloppy and may have dampened expectations a bit, but like you said it's still a road win, and we still have a legitimate chance to be a very solid football team and end up 6-6, 7-5, etc.

I know you can't turn off the roster-building part of your brain, but personally I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about THIS SEASON - what have you seen so far, what's surprised you, what do you want to see more of, what would it take to get Gameday to Champaign on Oct. 12, 2019, is Peters actually good, if we win on Saturday could we start to get random votes in the polls, etc.

Maybe I'm in the minority here, but even after Saturday I'm still more optimistic at this point than maybe any time since the 2011 season.

There's plenty of time to look at 2021 - for now let's at least have fun for awhile until things actually start crashing.

Just a little constructive criticism from a subscriber.

Bear8287 on September 11 @ 10:22 AM CDT

Yeah, you said that a lot better than I did in my post.


Groundhogday on September 11 @ 12:43 PM CDT

I'm also probably more optimistic than any time since 2011. But that is such a fantastically low bar! Beckman sure as heck didn't inspire much confidence.

Sweetchuck13 on September 11 @ 02:05 PM CDT

We're Illinois football fans. Of course it's a fantastically low bar - but it still gets me fired up.

Groundhogday on September 11 @ 03:35 PM CDT

I'm cautiously optimistic. Very cautious, because We Are Illinois!

Main concern at this point is whether we have enough DB depth to get through the season without being torched in the passing game.

Illini2k on September 11 @ 12:49 PM CDT

Michigan had a worse Saturday than Illinois. Take comfort in that.

Groundhogday on September 11 @ 01:38 PM CDT

Army finished 11-2 last season, took No 5 Oklahoma to overtime, and trounced Houston in their bowl game. Army would probably be favored against Illinois.

Michigan was clearly overranked at No. 5 going into that game, but Monken has built a really good program at Army.

Groundhogday on September 11 @ 02:27 PM CDT

As a side note, Jeff Monken's name has been brought up as a potential Illinois coach, or potential OC when he was less proven. Ken Niumatalolo as well. P5 programs don't seem to be willing to take a chance on the wishbone or other alternative offenses. For a program like Illinois, the risk might be worth it - if Lovie doesn't work out.

Illinimac68 on September 11 @ 03:55 PM CDT

If we'd hired him after Beckman I'd have been fine with it. However, if Lovie for some reason doesn't work out we still have an offensive scheme I like from Rod, the junior member of the Smith Brothers. I see transitioning to the wishbone as a setback from an offensive scheme that we've finally found that seems to work.

Groundhogday on September 11 @ 04:37 PM CDT

Coordinators are rarely retained in a coaching change. Remember all the clamoring to keep Koening?

Peters certainly wouldn't fit the wishbone, but IW would.

deadguy on September 11 @ 06:21 PM CDT

Just a terrible idea. It will take years to get the right personnel here to run that offense and in the meantime you ruin our chance to have a decent team in 2020 when most of the Class of 2017 will be Seniors along with our multiple year graduate transfers.

I’ve had season tickets for 15 years but I’m not going to renew just to watch that nonsense. There’s a reason why Georgia Tech has abandoned that offense.

Also, how did Army do against Rice? That team was almost as bad as UConn last year and Army scored 14 points against them.

Groundhogday on September 11 @ 06:44 PM CDT

Ga Tech went away from the Bone because there aren't many guys out there who know how to coach it. Paul Johnson had a lot of success over his 11 year tenure.

Reality is that will take years to get the right talent for any new coach. Every coach has their systems, the kind of guys they want to recruit. Hence the penalty associated with changing coaches. If Lovie can't win, his replacement will have an uphill battle.

Illinimac68 on September 11 @ 07:28 PM CDT

What if his replacement is Rod Smith?

Groundhogday on September 11 @ 09:40 PM CDT

Just like Vic Koenning was going to replace Zook? Coordinators for failed programs are almost NEVER promoted to the HC position. I'm sure there must be an exception somewhere, but I honestly can't think of a single counter example.

mmyers74 on September 12 @ 07:20 AM CDT


OC's often get the HC jobs when successful programs lose their head coach to a larger program, in an effort to maintain continuity of said success... but rarely, when the HC is fired. (Presumably Bc the Coach is fired due to poor on field performance, for which half of, falls under the responsibilities of said coordinator.)

It would take a crazy specific scenario to end up that way.

(Ironically, we may very well be the poster child for that rare scenario.)

Illinimac68 on September 12 @ 07:28 AM CDT

We also have a young, savvy athletic director who doesn't necessarily do things the way they've always been done as we can see from the initial decision to let Cubit go and hire Lovie. I hope this is all speculation since I can see 2020 as a successful year.

Groundhogday on September 12 @ 01:01 PM CDT

I hope this is all speculation since I can see 2020 as a successful year.

Yep. If Lovie isn't successful, Josh will be facing a suite of not good options. Illinois desperately needs stability. A coaching change almost always sets a program back. But if Lovie can't win on the field, fan support and recruiting will tank. We desperately need for the Lovie experiment to pay off.

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